(SIDE NOTE: It is interesting to note that that this play was jointly awarded “best play” in 1955 by the Playwrights’ Advisory Board with Oriel Gray’s play “The Torrents”. Interesting also to note that Armfield’s director’s note rattles off a swag of Australian classic plays- all by men.)

It’s an epic Australian play – a three hour experience – complete with 2 intervals. It’s a big story about the domestic agony of realising “you’ve gone as far as you can go.” The experience of attending the play is a little shocking to our current sensibility – yes, it was only last month I attended a 45 minute show. Most new plays are 90 minutes or under (no interval). It is now – even regarded by the writer as a museum piece – and even the writer’s note suggests as such. The time and circumstance of the characters firmly explained in a set of expectations and social codes that are regarded as “irrelevant” now.

But they’re not.

It’s the eve of my 32nd birthday – and as an unmarried woman, I know absolutely that the status of women has not really changed that much. I know exactly the judgement of my landlord as he looks at my bare ring finger. there is nothing irrelevant there. I feel it. It’s utterly pertinent. Utterly poignant. It’s tough waking up and realising that things will never be the same. Ever. And wondering if you’ve gone as far as you can go.

The most poignant thing about this production is that it shows that to an extent Armfield has grown out of his role of Artistic director of Belvoir. It used to be his backyard dreaming with Geoffrey Rush. But this is where the young hip, cardigan wearers play now. This is where they re-write the classics. This is where the young guard have painted the red revolutionary walls of the foyer white. It’s where the youth has inherited and taken over – wrapped actors in microphones and pinning them behind glass. if ever there was a production which felt like a retro glance to the old belvoir – the company B Belvoir – this is it. And that shift in culture of this company amplifies the message of the play – the growing out of your “glory days.”

And indeed it is nostalgic for those who remember that era – the music, the clothes, the way of life. And there are some in the audience who applaud the time capsule of this play being cracked open for them to reminisce and for us younger ones to gaze in wonderment.

It seems perfectly nostalgic also to have Neil Armfield complete this picture – with his warn floorboard/rusty-tin/mid-last century aesthetic. If you’ve seen a Neil Armfield production and you’ve read the play, what you imagine this production will be like, is exactly what you’re imagining. Nothing radical here. Nothing surprising. Like the ritual of a Sunday roast, really – it satisfies on one level because it is exactly as you expect. And for those who love a diet of Sunday roast – you’ll love this production.

For those who hanker for a thai noodles or kangaroo stir fry – you might be a little uninspired by the forgone conclusion.

I must admit I didn’t love this production. In fact, I was a little bored. And I accept that I am utterly alone in this opinion.

For me there is something humble about the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It’s steeped in working class aspiration. It was written at a time before NIDA existed – written a few years after A.A Phillips identified our cultural cringe. It was a time of shifting identity – an awareness of identity. And Lawler lead the charge to have Australians and Australian voices in stage. It was a time of growing and bucking trends – and cultural daring.

And so now to see some non-working class “stars” of Australian theatre do their best impersonation of an Australian accent and being “Australian” is, quite frankly a bit embarrassing. What we have is a naturalistic play which has been made unnatural through the fact that many people working in the arts have no longer have an immediate relationship with working class. Perhaps they may have grown up as children in working class areas, but their education and work opportunities and travel has removed them from the reality of the working class.( OK this is a tangent – but bare with me) It seems that making art, being an actor, being a writer or a director is reserved for those middle to upper class people who can afford to train for up to three years, perhaps travel and survive whilst waiting for work. As such I would suggest that we don’t have a diverse Australian industry (and I’m talking about class and opportunity here) and so our representations of poor white Australia seem to be patronizing at best. Try as she might, Robyn Nevin can’t shake off her elegance and refinement. Susie Porter can’t shake her poise.

The world of the Doll still seems to be a curiosity to audiences – some who are fascinated in the living museum aspect of the production – and some who enjoy the sneak peak into how the other half live (a safe way to slum it?).

This world is one of the working poor, of impoverishment, of making do with what you’ve got. And so the design by Ralph Myers (that has cut out a window in the wall of the Belvoir Theatre, and which has lights hanging outside the theatre like children dressed as ghosts) seems overly excessive and overly theatrical thus nullifying it’s very intention. Yes, realism is in the set and the costumes, and the bacon cooking off stage – BUT – the acting across the board is overly theatrical, overly self conscious and the hole in the wall where we can see/hear the contemporary cars pass by seems to do more harm than good. We sit there marvelling that there is a hole cut into the wall of the theatre (“ooh Belvoir must be doing very well if they can afford to do that to it’s walls…”)

It’s a heartbreaking play- as we witness the glitter and the tinsel rust on the dolls – the feathers fall apart, Olive’s world fall apart. We see the ravages of age. We see the great man, fall. It’s a heartbreaking production – in that this does not have the daring or innovation or tenderness of Armfield’s earlier works.

It is an incredible thing to have a 92 year old playwright, re-draft the play. Yes – plays are living and breathing things. They live in the present because they live in the audience.

I wonder – will this play ever be brought into the 21st century?

I wonder if Ray Lawler would ever consider contemporizing the play? That time and culture is not forever lost. There are still nomadic fruit pickers. There are still women who live and work as though they are ten years younger than they are… I wonder if in 100 years at Belvoir will this classic be “adapted” as other classic texts have been adapted by the current Belvoir crew?